On Cooking and Eating by Ivy Helman


In patriarchal heterosexist societies women do most if not all of the cooking for their families.  Women are also usually assigned the tasks of cleaning, raising children, tending the family garden, gathering water and anything else that is considered part and parcel of caring for the family.  These feminine tasks are often devalued compared to the activities men spend their time doing.  I wholeheartedly support the reevaluation of the significance of these tasks and the movement toward shared responsibility for family life among heterosexual couples, however that is not what I want to discuss today.

I want to explore the religious and spiritual significance of the food cooked by our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and female friends, especially those dishes we would consider to be comfort food.  Every person, every family has their own idea of what meals are comfort foods.  Bubbe’s matzah ball soup on Shabbat maybe?  Aunt Betsy’s Easter ham?  Mom’s turkey, gravy and oyster stuffing on Thanksgiving?  Your sister’s famous mac and cheese?   

I believe comfort food comes from the way women cook.  They prepare food out of love, commitment, care and concern as well as for sustenance.  Think of the movie Like Water for Chocolate.  In the movie, the women who make the food pour their emotions into their dishes and those who eat the food literally embody those emotions as well.  Comfort food quite literally provides comfort both physically and spiritually.  It seems to brighten even the direst moods.  It is magical!  Like the movie, I am suggesting that when we eat, we take into our bodies the love, commitment, care and concern transferred to the food by those who made it.  In this way, eating has physical as well as spiritual benefits.  The spiritual benefit is connected to the physical benefits and therefore not different or separate from the body’s need for nourishment.

Let me share some personal examples.  When I would get homesick, while living in Ecuador, Alba, the family’s maid, would make me home-made French fries.  That first bite of French fry at the kitchen table in Ecuador made home not seem so far away.  (Let me say I ate them a lot!  They were definitely my comfort food of choice then.)   I also happen to love my mother’s peach cobbler.  My mother’s peach cobbler puts a smile on my face and brings back some of my best memories from childhood.  Nothing compares to my Aunt Michelle’s pumpkin pie or my grandmother’s sweet and sour cucumbers.  If you asked my father, his favorite dessert was his mother’s pineapple upside-down cake that she said she made just for him when she knew he would be coming to an event.

Eating triggers my senses and my memories: my mouth waters; I think of past times I’ve eaten the particular dish and my body relaxes.  Once eaten, the food makes me feel full or at least satisfied physically, and it also affects my mood, my patience, my ability to think through things, etc.  With a bowl of peach cobbler in me, the stress of the day disappears and I’m able to relax and reflect.  Through eating the cobbler, I also feel the love and support of my mother.  I am convinced that mom’s cooking is better at helping me cope with life, confront difficult challenges and help me feel better in the midst of bad news than any spiritual advisor or religious figure’s advice to date.

It also brings back memories.  With a bite of my grandmother’s sweet and sour cucumbers, I feel the tartness of the vinegar and at the same time think of family croquet games on my Aunt Michelle’s lawn.  Those cucumbers also happen to remind me of the time my Aunt Patty broke our glass dining room table when she swore and slammed her fist down onto it in the heat of particularly frustrating hand of Sheepshead (a card game of German origin popular in Milwaukee, WI and the surrounding area).

This theology of food and eating also moves in other directions.  When I taste my first pumpkin pie in the fall, I feel reconnected to the cycles of the year at the same time I’m reminded of Thanksgiving and my family.  The smell of the barbeque reminds me of warm weather and the hot summer sun.  Here, food reconnects us to the cycles of life to the changes of the seasons to the movement of the planet in space as well as to our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and close female friends.

Another direction this discussion of food reawakens my commitment to making the world a better place, tikkun olam.  There are millions of women and girls who do not have the relationship to food that I do because they do not have enough to eat… because food is expensive… because there is not enough rain… because they cannot afford to rent or buy land from wealthy individuals or corporations… because they have to spend hours a day gathering water… because they do not have enough money to buy fresh fruit and vegetables… because processed food is so much more affordable… because daily survival is so difficult… because, because, because.

Every time I take a bit of food, I should remember all those who do not have enough to eat.  Eating should call us to work toward justice for the hungry because food is essential to existence on physical and spiritual levels.  In other words, every bite of my mother’s peach cobbler is physically and spiritually incomplete until I work to feed others as well.  Sometimes, I wish I could give every person in the world a big bowl of that peach cobbler.  I’m convinced that everyone would feel better because I know I do afterwards.  Until then, every time I have a bite, may it serve as a reminder to work to secure justice for the hungry of our world.

Food transforms me.  It envelops me in love and care.  It calms my nerves.  It connects me to the planet’s cycles.  It reminds me of growing up.  It connects me over and over again to the women in my life and their love, concern, care and commitment to me.  It reminds me of home.  And, it connects me to my sisters and their families around the world who do not have enough food to eat.  I need to do what I can to help feed them.  Food is necessary for survival, but it is also powerful and transformative.  Let us make sure that all the world has enough to eat.

Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Boston College teaching in its Perspectives Program and an Adjunct Lecturer at Merrimack College.  Her most recent publications include:  “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).



Categories: Family, Feminist Theology, Food, Human Rights, Judaism, Relationality, Social Justice, Women and Community, Women and Work

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

19 replies

  1. mmm…i remember too…in addition to commitment to social justice, i would add: giving thanks to the whole web of life of which we are a part, to all those individuals–cooks and those who transmitted receipes, cells of plants and animals that we eat, the soil that nurtured them, and to Gaia, the whole evolutionary process of which we are a part. i used to hate “saying grace,” but now i understand that our lives are by the grace of Life. thanks for a wonderful post.

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  2. Ivy, what you say is so true and so fine! When I was raising my kids we had a tradition that on their birthdays they could choose to eat whatever they wanted – I mean whatever !! – and my older daughter always chose home baked bread with home made vergetable soup ! The plainest and most basic meal in my reportary ! The food i made when I had no money left and had to pull something together out of nothing! And now she is grown up with kids of her own that is still what she will choose if I ask her what she wants for a treat !!
    Right now I’m siezing a couple of minutes from preing lunch for my friend who is coming over: I’ve made a lemon cake for her because it was her birthday yesterday. Cooking for a woman friend is something that gives me, and I’m sure many of us great pleaasure !

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  3. Yes. Thank you Carol for reminding me. The Source of Life should be thanked for the food that sustains and comforts us. Your comment also made me think of all the field workers, farmers, truck drivers and others whose hard labor goes into growing, harvesting and transporting food to places where most people go buy it. They deserve just working conditions and appreciation for all that they do as well.

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  4. What a tasty blog! I agree that the idea that if men do “women’s work” it is somehow more valued than when women are doing the work. That’s never made sense to me. Reading this blog, I also remembered seeing my grandmother and aunts and mother cooking for the holidays when I was a child. I still have some of my mother’s recipes from the Great Depression. One of them says “start with a pound of beef stew.” That was 10 cents in those days! And how many of us remember that smell and taste are the most subtle and most powerful of our physical senses. Proust made an enormous book out of the taste of a madeleine.

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  5. Ivy, I LOVE this post! Thank you so much for sharing it. I so relate to all that you say here. Cooking and baking was such an important part of my childhood. My fondest memories are of baking peanut butter cookies with my mom and the greatest gift I ever received was the recipe to our family’s homemade bolognese sauce.

    When my mom passed away about four years ago, the one thing that was so important to me was to have her recipe books. On her birthdays and the anniversary of her death, I cook and bake her favorite recipes and I feel like she is there with me.

    Now, I have a daughter, and passing on those traditions are so important to me. Although we get quite busy around here, I try to dedicate Sundays to baking and cooking with her. She’s not even three and already loves it.

    Again, thank you for sharing. This really touched my heart. :)

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  6. Just wanted to apologise for the typos in my post – the friend for whom I’d baked the cake turned up just as I was writing and I didn’t have time to make corrections.

    So: we ate ALL the cake ecept fot 2 little bits we just couldn’t manage, and before that we had smoked salmon and rye bread, and then we spent all afternoon chatting and eating more cake. She’s been through a really tough time recently and I told her the cake was made with pure butter and organic eggs and lemons and was real food as well as cake and would make her strong and she said she didn’t care about that, only that it tasted good.
    We also had a bottle of wine – wine and cake, just what the Goddess ordered.

    Anyway, I thought I’d post this, as it seemed to me to be eactly to the point !!

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  7. Now I need to go shopping. You have reminded me of so much. I loved how Aunt Sharon used to make me a peanut butter cake every year for my birthday. My mother in law makes us her amazing shrimp salad which Buck can’t stop eating. My mom used to make so much good food that I can’t bring it down to even a handful. Her warming soups in the winter and fresh foods from her garden during the summer. Everything was made with such love. Now that she’s gone and all of the recipes have been passed down to me it gives me a chance to feel close to her when I need to by not only making them but seeing her handwriting. Brings a smile to my face every time!

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  8. Thank you for this amazing post Ivy. I am wondering about the geographical differences in some of these cases. For example, I’m from Wisconsin (and proud of it :) ) and everywhere I looked growing up FATHERS were the ones that did most of the cooking for their families. I find this an interesting example because most of the time they were cooking meat products for their families and they were considered the “masters of the grills” etc.

    The only reason I bring this up is because of the connections we have often talked about regarding women and meat consumption. Is it telling that in these more “conservative” states or cultures we find men cooking meat as the “norm” and individuals accepting it as the “norm?” I can even see this in my life as I find myself more comfortable cooking meat rather than other options that I find my mother being more comfortable cooking.

    I am interested as to what you think. Great post!

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  9. John, I too grew up in Wisconsin, and grilling has been the traditional way my father and most of the men in the family cook. However, my mom and aunts also know how and are quite skilled at using the grill. It seems like most of the women (in my family anyway) let the men do the grilling: it is one less thing they have to worry about so they can finish the rest of the meal preparation and cooking.

    Keri, I don’t know if I’ve had Aunt Sharon’s peanut butter cake. Hopefully I will have some time to spend in Wisconsin this summer and maybe I can try it. I truly wish I remembered some of your mother’s cooking. I was quite young when she died. I love that you cherish seeing her handwriting on the recipes.

    To Everyone: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. Please continue to do so. I truly appreciate them all and I love to learn about your experiences with food.

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    • Ivy,
      Fellow Wisconsinite, how do you think perpetual hegemonic meat eating plays into this discussion of men (sometimes constantly) only cooking meat for their families via the grill? Are you familiar with the discussions in feminism about meat consumption and women? Would love to talk more!

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  10. Thank you for your post Ivy! Your talk about your mom’s cooking made me instantly think of my mother’s pie crust cookies which only appear at holidays, because you make them out of leftover pie dough.
    This is the only food that I loved as a child that still holds the same enthusiasm, anticipation and enjoyment for me now as it did when I was five. And my whole family feels that way! We “sneak” to take them home before they disappear. :)
    This joyful memory, however, also reminded me of the way that food was often used as comfort in our family too– a comfort that replaced real discussion or healing. All the women in my family (including me) have seriously agonized over and struggled with our weight, moving in and out of being extremely overweight. This, of course, has to do with social expectations in some ways– the lack of acceptance of bigger (in my case, Swedish) bodies. But, we have also struggled with the unhealthy attachment to food as a means of … release? or momentary pleasure…? At a Weight Watches meeting one day, our leader said, “You may love ice cream, but it doesn’t love you,” trying to encourage us to see how food can’t make our emotional difficulties go away—
    I have a vivid memory from my childhood of being given a bag of cheese twists when something sad had happened. I felt like there was something wrong with this, but ate them because I thought it was what I was supposed to do.
    Interesting to me, thinking about this memory and your post, is that often my unhealthy eating has been of food that my mom, my sisters, myself didn’t make— it was processed.

    As you suggest, when relationships are built into food, there is real joy that can be found… and community, and relationship to our world… and really, I agree.
    This has given me some new things to think about in my relationship to food and others. Thank you!

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  11. Interesting post. My own relationship with food is strained as I have a medical condition that can cause all kinds of problems for me before, during, and after eating. I have to very carefully watch what I eat to prevent bouts. Much of what I consider to be comfort food is indeed made by my mother, or by female relatives. But when I thought about it more, my absolute favorite meal is family dinner; weekly Sunday night dinner with my family, made entirely by my father. It is always pasta, sometimes with salad, or sometimes with meat sauce, but always made by him. Just as we should evaluate who makes our food and who is going without food, we should also remember that men are not helpless, and some of them are very good cooks.

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  12. I don’t know how I honestly feel about eating the emotions that were put in my food. I love to cook, and I love to eat, I like the idea of reclaiming female tasks that have been devalued, but what if the chef that prepared your meals did so as an obligatory task and not out of love.

    I recently went to my grandparents house for the weekend. My grandma made four meals, and every meal she made she repeatedly apologized for. She told stories about when her and my grandpa were dating, and how she had burnt the first dinner she made for him, and how she was so grateful he didn’t ditch her. I felt hurt that my grandma thought that so much of her worth lied in the food that she was preparing. Beyond that I work at a coffee shop, and I wonder the abuse that the farmers suffer when tending to their crops. If the tea farmers crop isn’t as good as it was last year, or even as go0d as it has been for the last 10 years, the company will no longer use them. Their whole crop has been dropped by us. There are soo many emotions from so many different people going into preparing a single cup of coffee.

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    • Just a further comment ; I once spent a couple of hours prepping a meal for six people, including my kids. It was all eaten within twenty minutes. I remarked that my labour had been wasted as two hours work had been wolfed down in twenty minutes. Back came the reply that, on the contrary, as each of six people would be sustained for at least four hours, I had a very good return on my my labour, having turned two hours into twenty four !

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    • Yet, do you feel how much potential this relationship to awareness of food could have in transforming our world? In healing our world? And see into how all the illnesses and disease in our cultures could be related to ignoring the pain and violence involved in food resourcing? Really beautiful blog.

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  13. such a great post, ivy and i remember how wonderful and truly ritualistic in the best sense of the word it was when i came to your first passover that you had ever cooked– in claremont!

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  14. The second I read matzah ball soup in your blog I had to keep reading! Growing up, I lived with my mom and sister and my mom always did all the cooking. She was also the only one taking care of my sister and I. In a chapter by Anne McGrew Bennett she discusses how women are made to help men. I feel that it is common in a lot of families that the women cook for the entire family. In my family, my mother didn’t have a choice and that is common in many other families as well. I loved your blog!

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  15. Love this post! I particularly enjoyed how you brought current relevancy to the ancient Ayurvedic approach to food with “I am suggesting that when we eat, we take into our bodies the love, commitment, care and concern transferred to the food by those who made it. In this way, eating has physical as well as spiritual benefits. The spiritual benefit is connected to the physical benefits and therefore not different or separate from the body’s need for nourishment.” This is very powerful. And, as another person commented, creates an awareness of all the threads that lead back to the birth of that ‘food’ that we are consuming — physical, emotional and spiritual. Beautiful.

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  1. “Eating Our Words” Decoupling Women’s Eating Habits from the Language of Sin: Part 2 by Stefanie Goyette « Feminism and Religion

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